Judge Rotenberg Educational Center Controversies
The Center makes use of aversives as part of their intensive, 24/7 behavior modification program. Until the late 1980s, aversion therapy was administered in the form of spanking with a spatula, pinching the feet, and forced inhaling of ammonia.
Currently the Center administers 2-second electric skin shocks to residents using a Graduated Electronic Decelerator (GED), which was invented to administer the skin-shocks by remote control through electrodes worn against the skin. Most often, the shocks are initiated manually by the staff. Automatic punishment is also used by forcing the patient to sit down on a cushion; if they stand up, they are automatically shocked. To address high-risk, low-frequency behaviors, a “Behavior Rehearsal Lesson” has been planned: The person is restrained and forcibly told to misbehave: if the student pulls away, he is shocked; if he follows the order to engage in the risky behavior, he is shocked even more. Reduction of food is also used as punishment: up to three-quarters of the daily required calories can be withheld from the patients if staff judges they are misbehaving.
Concerns into the treatment regime prompted investigation by New York City Council and an independent report was commissioned which was highly critical of both processes and oversight at the facility. The report mentioned a dependence on punishment, almost to the total exclusion of positive reinforcement, medication or psychological therapy. This dependence is also evident in the lack of effort to switch gradually to other treatment as the condition of the patients improves. Social interaction, academic instruction and respect for the patients dignity were all found insufficient. The report also found substantial risks of malnourishment and side effects of the repeated punishments — both physical (burns) and psychological (fear, PTSD, aggression). The qualifications of the personnel were judged insufficient; indeed, most of the staff have only completed high school. Some of the electrical shocking devices used are not cleared by the FDA.
In December, 2007, the Center was found by the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care to have been abusive towards residents, failing to protect their health, after two residents were shocked using a GED on the behest of a former student, posing as a staff member via telephone. Video surveillance revealed that one resident was restrained on a 4-point board despite the fact the individual was not approved for this type of physical restraint.
A video tape documenting a compilation of the footage related to abuse investigations was destroyed by the school after being reviewed by several investigators, despite being requested to keep the tape by an investigator with the Disabled Persons Protection Commission.
Parents of difficult children have been both highly supportive and critical of the center’s practices. Said one mother, “[All I have to do is show it (shock device) to my son and…] he’ll automatically comply to whatever my signal command may be, whether it is ‘Put on your seat belt,’ or ‘Hand me that apple,’ or ‘Sit appropriately and eat your food,’… It’s made him a human being, a civilized human being.”
In 2006 Evelyn Nicholson sued the school after her son was shocked 79 times in 18 months.